Time is up for awkward customer, Greece

Such complex situations cannot be resolved satisfactorily by only addressing numerical data or even the historic socio-economic and geopolitical factors that underpin them, without some understanding of the mindsets of the people involved. A reply to Vassilis Fouskas.

In Professor Fouskas’s article, he dismisses the neoliberal economic pragmatism that holds the culture of patronage, clientelism, nepotism and corruption rife in the political and economic geography of Greece responsible for its ills. Although he has several valid points to make drawn from the historic socio-economic and geopolitical framework that shaped the current Greek state, he fatally underestimates the cultural factor.

He argues that the main sources of Greek sovereign debt stem from the interlocking of a ‘comprador-cum-financial oligarchy’, as the author terms it, with political ruling elites who fostered it and whose incessant borrowing coupled with eurozone membership nurtured the current crisis. Yet this line of argument has fundamental flaws, for it neglects the culture that frames the Greek problem. Such complex situations cannot be resolved satisfactorily by only addressing numerical data or even the historic socio-economic and geopolitical factors that underpin them, without some understanding of the mindsets of the people involved.

Too frequently cultural factors are forgotten or ignored: for twenty first century Greece is still haunted by the legacy of roguish Romiosini embodied in the orientalised image of a nation that can do nothing except by means of personal influence and graft (Herzfeld 1987). This, coupled with the assertion of a false consciousness of greatness, dismissive of and insensible to others, fosters the rogue mentality that pervades the modus operandi of Greek politics and Greek lifestyle alike. It is this debasing national mind-set that underpins the current crisis. Hence in this context everyone is culpable.

Notwithstanding this, there have been alternative voices over the years questioning this culture and mentality so inextricably linked to the current economic debacle; yet they have been systematically muted. Such voices for years were flashing the red light for the smothered growth and creativity rendering sterile the political, social and cultural landscape. They warned time and time again that such a modus operandi delineated by missed opportunities and extraordinary political games were at the expense of Greece’s real development, and would deprive the nation of any possibility of progressively maturing, and consequently the state as a whole, from earning a creditable place in the developed world.

Yet the Greek demos would mandate the same old party politics to govern, and remained immobilized against the financial oligarchy. Of course Professor Fouskas would explain this solely from the historical perspective. Yet alongside history, which undoubtedly shapes demoi, polities and civil societies alike, there are common cultural denominators at play, preceding such structures - as authors such as Julia Kristeva in Strangers to ourselves, Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, and Walter Benjamin in Illuminations, to name but a few - have argued. These have considered, along quite different theoretical trajectories, those cultural denominators that frame the predisposition of any nation.  

With regards to the Greek situation I would argue that the aforementioned roguish Romiosini legacy, formed long before the formation of the Greek nation-state and embodied in the contemporary culture of nepotism and ‘who you know favouritism’ and excused under the banner of survival, is a crucially important factor in turning Greeks against one another and thereby undercutting the maturing of its demos, polity and civil society.

Elites, political, financial or otherwise, do not form in cultural vacuums.  The cultures in which they operate are constitutive of their agency and underpin their manifestations. In other words the members of these elites are the sons and daughters of the nation they come from, with its distinct cultural identity that is built up from the bottom up and has found its ways of expression in practices of living shaped by its historic, social, political and economic trajectories.

The significance of those practices lays precisely in their undefined universality acting as a legitimator of action and cement of group cohesion (Hobsbawm 1983). For any nation such practices become the leaven of its cultural predisposition that ferments its society by constructing a unified discourse which addresses the needs of people and establishes connections with their lived culture. It is understandable why Japan and the USA, two of the most corrupt and clientelist regimes in the world according to the author, have experienced modernity and other economic and technological advances over the last century, and Greece has not. It is simply because of their respective cultural predisposition. Their institutions would never allow the unmitigated hijacking of their countries by such regimes or their civil societies to be debased to the extent as has occurred in Greece.

As stated at the beginning of this article Professor Fouskas rightfully situates his argument within the historic socio-economic trajectory of contemporary Greece that engendered the kind of political and financial schema that has stunted civil society. Yet by doing so he sidelines the cultural factor that fostered all this and absolves the Greek demos of any responsibility. In my view the Greek demos suffers from ‘external attributions’, as Weiner formulated it in 2000 for future psychologists, blaming the ominous end game for Greece solely on either ‘the xenoi’, (that is foreign state and private apparatuses) or the national oligarchies, or the misfortunes bestowed upon them by their national history. There is a plethora of Greek proverbs in vernacular language that encapsulate such a lack of collective responsibility inferred by the aforementioned psychological term, which I am sure the author must be aware of.   

Sadly, the political liberation that followed the collapse of the military coup in 1974 was not matched by any retrospection that would possibly have remodelled the country along the lines of other developed nations.  Instead, the country became immersed in a pseudo-reality of stability and ever growing prosperity encouraged by EC/EU subsidies and cheap loans. Consequently the centre left and centre right parties, along with their supporters and the comprador-cum-financial oligarchy, became the sole brokers of the flows of capital in the country, meaning that they amassed for themselves affluence beyond their means. This period gave rise to a new class of ‘‘haves”, that gained a feeling of importance deluding themselves with an engrossed sense of Greek exceptionalism vis-a-vis the rest of the world, accentuating the rift between them and ‘the have-nots’ who were, in this case, those shut out of this brokerage framework, embittered and discontent.  

The Eurozone’s regrettable mistake was the admission of Greece. For they knowingly did so, aware that books had been cooked; yet without having in place a proper plan for an exit strategy when crisis was to knock at Europe’s door. The political rationale of the European project overrode economic pragmatism. As for Greece, it deserves to get all it bargained for; this is its wakeup call.

Yet in Greece’s moment of hoped for reactivation, questions should be raised that critique the sedimented attitudes responsible for the dilapidated state of affairs corroding the Greek state and society. It is time for a cultural change to occur that would embrace a new kind of polity, working ethos and governance. This is undoubtedly an undertaking on an epic scale unlike any other Greece has experienced so far. This ought to range from the introduction of an education that nurtures collective responsibility for the state of the country - the hallmark of a mature nation - developing an economic paideia, while initiatives that promote interaction with the rest of world would encourage new ways of conduct and thinking.

The payout time is up for both players-both the Euro zone and the Greeks.  For Greece in particular it will be a painful and prolonged period; one in which the Euro zone should prevail, becoming stronger and with lessons learnt.

However, despite the imposition of any resolutions it will take many years before shifts in Greek mentality materialise. Greek cultural attitudes are deeply resistant to change. The impact of their articulations on Greek economics is evident everywhere, manifested in the economic patterns and behaviour that have brought the country to its knees. For this reason, any argument for Greece’s plight cannot avoid dealing with the social and cultural aspects of Greek mentality; otherwise the stage is set for ongoing turbulence with potentially disastrous results. 

About the author

George Begos holds a doctorate in cultural geography from the University of Durham. His subject area is the ‘European project’ - Europe’s integration, cohesion and democratic legitimacy, in relation to how notions of a European identity and belonging may be fostered in the context of the transnational mobilities the Union engenders.